Touch of Evil

Orson Welles and Charlton Heston in Touch of Evil

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

10 May

 

Rock around the Clock released, 1954

On this day in 1954, Bill Haley and His Comets released the single Rock around the Clock. It wasn’t the first rock and roll record – that was probably Rocket 88 by Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm (though the label credited Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats, Brenston being Turner’s sax player) – and it was only moderately successful, hitting number 23 on the Billboard chart before dropping out completely after one week. Written in 1952 by Max Freedman and James Myers, it was first recorded by Sonny Dae and His Knights. Haley’s version was used in the film Blackboard Jungle – a drama set in an inner-city school and starring Glenn Ford and Sidney Poitier. It was at this point that the song became a success, rocketing back to the top of the Billboard chart and announcing the arrival of a new youth movement. Haley was 29 when he had the hit, quite old for a teenager. Meanwhile, in Memphis, a 19-year-old truck driver called Elvis Presley was warming up his pipes.

 

 

 

Touch of Evil (1958, dir: Orson Welles)

Touch of Evil is Orson Welles’s rock’n’roll film. Going large on transgression and youth culture, it places Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh as a pair of newlyweds on the border between Mexico and the USA, where Heston’s Mexican detective gets caught up in the investigation into a car bomb, in a sex’n’drugs’n’rock’n’roll town ruled over by lumbering hulk of corruption Sheriff Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles). The film opens with the most famous continuous take in film history, with blonder-than-blonde Leigh and a brownface Heston moving slowly towards the checkpoint, while behind them, and advancing every second, comes the car with a bomb (we know, they don’t) in its trunk. Over the next 100-plus minutes, Welles feeds us a soup of lust and licentiousness, law-breaking and trans-racial coupling that is still fairly unusual today, unheard of back in 1958. The studio cut the picture to ribbons and removed a lot of the ambient rock music from the soundtrack, though the version now available (around 111 minutes) is an approximation of what Welles originally envisaged, since it follows fairly closely the 58 page memo he sent to the studio after their first hack through his long, audacious and unsettling film.

Whether the memo expresses Welles’s real wishes or his best compromise is now academic; this “restoration” is all there is left. Not all is perfect in this iconic masterpiece – neither Leigh nor Heston can act, and Leigh in particular seems to be struggling with basic line readings. And Heston as a Mexican? Well, you might say, if he can play an ancient Judean… But then so much of this film is improbable, over-ripe – the casting, the acting, and what about the fact that Susan (Leigh) appears to have been raped by a local gang, an event dealt with almost as if it didn’t happen? The answer might be: the film isn’t really about her, or her husband, even though they are billed as its stars and the film follows them from the start. It’s about the shadowy Quinlan, the sweating gargantuan brought low by his own chicanery, not least his attempts to frame the newlyweds on drugs and murder charges. Other delights include an unbilled Marlene Dietrich, shot so carefully you’d never guess she was nudging 60, as the gypsy brothel keeper and soothsayer who Kane, sorry Quinlan, confides in. Don’t follow the spotlight, Dietrich’s presence seems to be saying, the real show in Touch of Evil is all going on in the wings.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A support cast including Dennis Weaver and Zsa Zsa Gabor
  • Russell Metty’s expressionistic monochrome cinematography
  • Henry Mancini’s score
  • Another Welles masterpiece

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Touch of Evil – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Double Indemnity

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

18 April

 

Miklós Rózsa born, 1907

On this day in 1907, the celebrated and prolific film composer Miklós Rózsa was born, in Budapest, Hungary. His mother was a pianist and his father was a wealthy industrialist. Young Miklós was performing in public and composing at the age of eight. After studying in Leipzig, Germany, he moved to London, where fellow Hungarian, the producer Alexander Korda gave him his first film to score, 1937’s Knight without Armour. Rózsa went to Hollywood with Korda to work on The Thief of Bagdad, then went on to work on several Billy Wilder films, including Five Graves to Cairo and Double Indemnity. In 1945 three of his scores (for Spellbound, The Lost Weekend and A Song to Remember) were nominated for an Oscar (Spellbound won). Among the films that Rózsa then went on to score were The Killers, The Naked City and Ben-Hur, the last winning him his third Oscar. He continued working on film scores into the 1980s – Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid was his last – his tally of completed works by then standing at over 90. He was also a prolific writer of concert works.

 

 

 

Double Indemnity (1944, dir: Billy Wilder)

No matter how resistant you are to old films, films in black and white, the arch histrionics of Barbara Stanwyck or Fred MacMurray’s big chump persona, within five minutes of the beginning of Double Indemnity you will be hooked. It is close to being the perfect film, devastating in its logic, with a script that is as hard-boiled as it is playful. The key scene comes immediately after the opening credits, when insurance salesman Walter Neff (MacMurray) tries to sell a policy to feisty bright dame Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck). Immediately we know where we are and what’s going on – though he doesn’t know it, Neff is the anti Philip Marlowe, a wiseguy who isn’t quite wise enough. He’s got the hat and the patter and he’s very sure of himself. He’s his company’s top salesman and has earned the right to swagger. And as we sit back and watch, there he is being absolutely and exquisitely worked over by a woman he can’t believe is trading flirtations with him, a hot babe who wears an ankle chain – woo hoo.
By the end of the scene Walter – how that name sounds when Stanwyck purrs it – is trussed up tighter than a capon, and is on the way to agreeing to sell Mrs Dietrichson’s husband an expensive life policy before murdering him. After that they’ll cash in and start a new life together. This last bit doesn’t seem even faintly likely to happen, given the slipperiness of her and the over-eagerness of him – and the cinema code of the time would never let such a thing happen either – so what Neff and Dietrichson are doing and what we’re watching are two entirely different things. We know it, Wilder knows, we know Wilder knows we know it. And so on. Only Neff and Dietrichson seem oblivious. It’s a slo-mo car crash of a film noir – one of the first of the genre – with director Billy Wilder constantly teasing, holding off the awful moment of reckoning. Enter Edward G Robinson as Walter Neff’s boss Barton Keyes, a cigar-smoking pernickety investigator who, from his slightly stagey delivery and bookish persona, seems to be operating in a different film. He’s the one whose simple questions, adherence to protocol and actuarial tables starts to uncover their scheme – what potential suicide, he asks, jumps off a train travelling at 15 miles per hour to kill himself? Or was he perhaps helped to jump?
And from that observation onwards Walter and Phyllis are done for. The film is about process – how Neff and Dietrichson first tie each other into murderous knots, and then how Keyes unpicks them. Raymond Chandler rewrote James M Cain’s pitiless story, adding all the juicy to and fro between Neff and Dietrichson (Phyllis: “I think you’re rotten”. Walter: “I think you’re swell – as long as I’m not your husband”.) and even if it wasn’t at all satisfying in terms of cast and plot, the dialogue alone would make it double-worth it.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • One of the first and best film noirs
  • Raymond Chandler’s dialogue
  • Miklós Rózsa’s score
  • Cinematography by John F Seitz (The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard)

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Double Indemnity – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Murder, My Sweet

Original cinema poster for Murder, My Sweet

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

14 November

 

 

Dick Powell born, 1904

On this day in 1904, Dick Powell was born. A remarkably adaptable man, Powell started his career as a singer in the 1920s, then became a movie star in the 1930s. In the 1940s he switched from light comedy and musical films to weightier, tough-guy roles. In the 1950s he was one of the founders of a TV company, Four Star Television, who made The Big Valley and Burke’s Law, among other hits shows, and gave an early leg up to talent such as Steve McQueen, Mary Tyler Moore and Sam Peckinpah. Powell also became a producer and director in the 1950s, with the submarine drama The Enemy Below and the Korean war actioner The Hunters among his credits. He’d made his directorial debut with 1952’s Split Second, a thriller that pitched three escaped convicts unawares into the middle of a nuclear testing site in Nevada. Powell himself had been unaware that he’d been downwind of a nuclear testing site when he was shooting exteriors in Utah for The Conqueror, which starred John Wayne as Genghis Khan. Of the cast and crew of 220, 91 developed cancer by 1981 and of the 46 who eventually died one was Wayne himself, though Powell too had succumbed – to lymphoma in 1963, aged 58.

 

 

Murder, My Sweet (1944, dir: Edward Dmytryk)

This adaptation of a Raymond Chandler thriller was originally called Farewell My Lovely, as was the book, but the studio changed it immediately after one screening because it turned out that audiences had arrived expecting a musical. The reason for that was because its star, Dick Powell, was known as a crooner and light comedian. So, in went “Murder” in titular pole position and out went any lingering doubts as to what was on offer. Powell had been pestering studio bosses to let him play heavier roles for years. And he turns out to have been exactly right – he makes a great Philip Marlowe, Chandler’s hard-bitten white knight who never lets on what a good guy he is. Humphrey Bogart has become identified with the role but it’s said that Chandler himself preferred Powell (where he actually said this, I don’t know). If he did say it, it’s easy to see why – Powell is vulnerable, looks like he’s a not particularly tough guy playing tough because that way he gets to stay alive. The plot: Marlowe is investigating two cases. In one he’s been hired by a poor deadbeat hulk called Moose Molloy to find a disappeared woman; in the other by wealthy sexbomb Mrs Grayle to recover her disappeared necklace. It turns out the two cases are related, though, in true Chandler style, the further in to the plot we go, the more confusing things become. It’s complicated, like life, Chandler having built a career on his rejection of the cosy, easy British whodunnit in which Miss Marple arrives, fingers the villain, and exits humming on a bicycle. Giving “murder back to the people who really committed it” as Chandler had written approvingly about Dashiell Hammett, one of the creators of the hard-boiled genre. Murder, My Sweet does that, but it does more – it sets the mood for most of the film noir movies to follow, all those dark shadows, that fog, the night-time scenes, the wiseguy narration, the femmes fatales. It’s not only a great film of its time, it stands up as lean, propulsive entertainment all these decades later.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Harry Wild’s great monochrome cinematography
  • Former wrestler Mike Mazurki as Moose Molloy
  • Claire Trevor in one of her many “rotten to the core” femme fatale roles
  • Raymond Chandler’s endlessly quotable dialogue, left almost untouched by adapter John Paxton

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Murder, My Sweet aka Farewell My Lovely – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Third Man

 

 

So much is right about the Third Man that could have gone so wrong. Producer David O. Selznick wanted it shot entirely on studio sets. Director Carol Reed disagreed and won, which is why it’s shot on the dank streets of post-war Vienna, a city as overrun with black marketeers as the film suggests. Selznick also wanted Noel Coward to play Harry Lime, the role eventually taken by Orson Welles. Perhaps Coward would have made a good “Third Man”, a shit trading penicillin to the highest bidder and damn the children who die as a consequence. But if Coward had taken the role, there wouldn’t have been the “cuckoo clock” speech, written by Welles, which makes the case that all human achievement is founded on suffering. As to the rest of it, who knows what would have happened once Selznick started getting his way – for the American release he changed Graham Greene’s opening monologue, which does in five minutes of scene-setting what some films can’t manage in an hour. It’s a masterpiece of concision. But then every aspect of the film says “masterpiece” – the writing, the directing, the casting, locations, Anton Karas’s zither score, the cinematography. It’s still regulary voted “Best British film of all time”.

© Steve Morrissey 2007

 

The Third Man – at Amazon

 

 

Strangers on a Train

 

 

Remakes are always being mooted – one far-fetched internet rumour had Ricky Gervais starring in one of them – but whatever eventually pops out, it’s unlikely to eclipse this warped 1951 original, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and written by Patricia Highsmith, surely one of cinema’s most misanthropic couplings. Hitchcock, as book after book delights in telling us, loved torturing blondes. The lesbian Highsmith, on the other hand, loved to torture homosexuals – see The Talented Mr Ripley, for example. And it’s Highsmith who comes out on top in this thriller about two men agreeing to swap murders. Robert Walker plays Bruno Anthony, the psychotic ball of mother-love who wants his horrible father dead. Farley Granger is Guy Haines, a clean-limbed tennis pro with a wife restricting his extra-mural canoodlings. The trouble starts when psycho Bruno kills Guy’s wife and expects Guy to fulfil his end of the deal, a “deal” which Guy had thought was merely the what-if ramblings of strangers passing time on a long train journey. Spicing up this stew is the regularly suggested but never openly stated homo-erotic subtext, with mad Bruno constantly making cow eyes at rangey Guy. And there you have it, the basic steps – sex, death and guilt – for life’s never-ending tango. Irresistible.

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

Strangers on a Train – at Amazon

 

 

 

Kiss Me Deadly

Critics continue to argue over whether this is the best film noir ever made but all seem united on one point – Kiss Me Deadly is the best adaptation of one of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels. Now 50 years old, the film opens with a scene that still packs a punch – cynical private eye Mike Hammer picks up a girl hitchhiker who is wearing only a mac. Within minutes his car has been run off the road and a brutal gang is torturing the girl before killing her.

The stage is set for Hammer, one of cinema’s great anti-heroes, to become avenging angel, visiting bad men in places high and low to find out whodunit and why. Ralph Meeker is a perfect Hammer, a dirty, lowdown man full of animal cunning, snide one-liners and little else, the ideal operator in a world gone to the bad.

Director Robert Aldrich and ace cinematographer Ernest Laszlo back Meeker every frame of the way in a succession of blowsy, jaundiced nihilstic set-ups designed to bring out the worst in every place and every person. And how do you finish off a film set in a world rotten from top to bottom. With a cleansing dose of nuclear apocalypse of course. That’s better.



Kiss Me Deadly – at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

© Steve Morrissey 2006